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A diplomatic dispute between Saudi Arabia and Canada is escalating. The Saudi government says its national airline will no longer travel to Toronto. It's already expelled the Canadian ambassador and recalled its own ambassador to Ottawa. At the heart of this dispute is a tweet from Canada's foreign minister criticizing Saudi Arabia's arrest of a human rights activist. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: This is not the first time Canada or other countries have criticized Saudi Arabia over its human rights record. But the tweet by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland late last week about the jailing of a Saudi activist seemed to touch a raw nerve with the Saudi government. Within hours, diplomatic relations were in tatters and all new trade frozen. Saudi Arabia banned more than 10,000 of its students from returning to college in Canada. Riyadh issued a four-paragraph statement lambasting Ottawa for what it called blatant interference in the kingdom's domestic affairs.
BESSMA MOMANI: I think we're all scratching our heads. Why now? I think it has more to do with what's happening in Saudi Arabia.
NORTHAM: Bessma Momani is a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She says this firestorm is the work of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Momani says King Salman, the prince's father, recently overturned his son's support for a U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. It was seen as a very public rebuke to the crown prince.
MOMANI: I can't help but feel this is sort of a distraction away from an embarrassing week. Why not rile up the nationalistic base starting this diplomatic dispute?
NORTHAM: Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East specialist with Stratfor, a global intelligence company, says Crown Prince Mohammad needs foreign investment for a set of ambitious economic reforms. She says it's clear Saudi Arabia will not tolerate external criticism as it pursues those reforms.
EMILY HAWTHORNE: So it's working hard to really focus that media narrative at home and abroad on its reform program in a positive way, in a way that reflects positively on the government.
NORTHAM: Canada is not a major trading partner of Saudi Arabia. The two countries do roughly $4 billion of trade each year. Waterloo University's Momani says Canada is being made an example of what happens if you criticize the kingdom.
MOMANI: You know, it's trying to tell the international community that if your companies want a piece of the pie in Saudi Arabia, they better not criticize us. And there are lucrative deals to be made.
NORTHAM: Canada may be on its own in this dispute. The White House has a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert says Canada and Saudi Arabia need to resolve things on their own.
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HEATHER NAUERT: It's a diplomatic issue. Saudi Arabia and Canada can certainly stand to work it out together.
NORTHAM: Canadian Foreign Minister Freeland reiterated Monday that Ottawa will always stand up for human rights around the world. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.